20 Now when He was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, He answered them and said, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation;
Let me pray for us.
Loving God, give us the grace to be in tune with you now. No matter where our hearts may be, no matter what’s on our minds, whether broken or scattered, or stubborn or indifferent, soften us through the power of your loving grace and mercy. We seek to create an empty space, a humbling space to hear truth, maybe through or maybe despite my words, that in the hearts and minds of each of us, you speak to us more loudly and clearly than anything I can arouse. Infuse in us the Holy Spirit, our teacher, our guide, who leads us and comforts us no matter the perils. Be with us now we pray and reveal to us your kingdom. Amen.
I recently watched a film called My Octopus Teacher on Netflix. It was on the critically acclaimed list, so it must be good, and lately I am drawn to the sea, the ocean, the nature of all things that makes me feel small. It’s a documentary about a man, amidst a place of crisis and feeling stuck in life, decides to go back to one of his fondest childhood activities, diving underwater. There he encounters an octopus and from then on decides to go back to that same diving spot day after day, every day. He ends up going for more than 300 days, and the film captures that journey. Oh it’s beautifully shot. Just the wondrous and enchanting place that is underwater. And an octopus is a fascinating creature. Did you know that with its eight legs, sometimes on the ocean floor, it lands two of its legs down and walks, looking like a lady in an extravagant ball gown strutting about?
I’ve been on a social media break lately and this journey of the filmmaker Craig Foster, intrigued me. The desire to just go underwater. Away from all the problems of the world, away from the busyness, the stress, and the pressures of life. Just dive down deep, and be completely engulfed in silence.
I think spirituality can have that draw sometimes. In that deep spiritual presence of God in the inner places of my thoughts. That’s one of the reasons that this text today has always had a special place in my heart and in my theology. Kingdom of God within. The Kingdom of God within me! Oh how I longed to know and experience that. I have been so comforted by the knowledge that the name of God in Hebrew are breath vowels, YWHW, too holy to speak, that the Jewish people used a whole another name, Adonai when speaking of God. This breath that hovered over the waters in creation. The Holy Spirit as breath and wind has always spoken to me
But can I be real with you? I landed on this text with the desire to share this particular idea, that God is inside you. That you can access God right here in your breath, as you look deeply close to your inner being. I wanted to say,
“See! Even Jesus said, God is within you!”
However the spirit of God had other plans and brought me to another place that I need to share with you. It was humbling, as I read and researched the text, that it wasn’t taking me where I was planning to go with it, but also more wondrous and expansive than my own spiritual longings.
Just like my own spiritual longings, I think the church has also had this obsession with finding and pinpointing to that thing. That thing, that love, that peace, that kingdom of God, that reign of God when all is well and everything is good. While I was trying to find it here, it’s in here!
(When the text clearly says,
“no one can say, “look the kingdom of God, see right here, it’s here!”),
the church has often pointed to a literal heaven, specifically the afterlife. This apocalyptic language that has been central to American Christianity didn’t come out of thin air, but yes, it was very rooted in the biblical apocalyptic language that existed to describe and talk about God, or the reign of God. Some called it Kingdom of Heaven, some called it Kingdom of God, interchangeably, and yes it was trying to get at that thing, I believe, that we’re all seeking for. The Jewish tradition sometimes calls it Shalom. That state of peace, but not just nice peace, but justice, harmony, interconnectedness. And so actually the rest of today’s text, Jesus does go on using this similar apocalyptic language, talking about Noah’s flood, and Sodom’s rain of fire.
Jesus says in verse 34-37,
“34 I tell you, in that night there will be two [j]men in one bed: the one will be taken and the other will be left.
35 Two women will be grinding together: the one will be taken and the other left.
36 [k]Two men will be in the field: the one will be taken and the other left.”
37 And they answered and said to Him, “Where, Lord?” So He said to them, “Wherever the body is, there the eagles will be gathered together.””
Apocalyptic language was a genre. But, well, it was based on reality. Reality that under Roman’s rule, complete destruction from the enemy was absolutely a possibility for them. That was their impending doom..
The notable new testament scholar N.T. Wright says this,
“The passage does not refer to an event in which natural or supernatural forces will devastate a town, a region, or the known world; rather like so many of Jesus’ warnings in Luke, it refers to the time when enemy armies will invade and wreak sudden destruction. The word that means ‘vultures’ is the same word as ‘eagles’ (ancient writers thought vultures were a kind of eagle), and there may be a cryptic reference here to the Roman legions, with the eagles as their imperial badge.”
It wasn’t about the “end times” but it was about a real current threat, speaking to the lived fears of the day. Something that they were worried about, a political, military issue of their time. And Jesus was speaking right to it, about it.
A slice of Christian theology has come to pinpoint the kingdom of God as entering heaven or hell in the afterlife, understandably based on such apocalyptic literature. Many of you, probably most of you are too familiar with this, even if you are new to faith or didn’t grow up in the church. But if you did, maybe even more so, you’ve heard about the importance of being baptized or converting to Christianity so that you may go to heaven after you die.
Somewhere along the line, a helpful metaphor to describe the current issue of the day, became a literal place that drove people into shame or fear to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. I do think the metaphor CAN be helpful, in revealing the truth, but sometimes I feel like… I preach about once a month and every time I preach, I just want to say, “it’s a metaphor!” And metaphors are powerful but it can be unhelpful and sometimes even toxic and dangerous when taken literally.
I was talking to a friend who’s left the church for a while. They said,
“why should I care? Who really knows what happens after you die? What matters to me is my life right now? Why is my life the state that it’s in right now and what does God think about that? Why isn’t he doing anything about it? He just wants to be worshiped?”
My heart was sad to hear about their life situation, and worse that they thought God didn’t care. I couldn’t just say,
“But God does care!”
because then what about their life, their current real struggles. I didn’t have an answer to that. So I just sat there, wondering too,
“how do we know that God cares about us, right now, our lives?”
Do you ever wonder that? If God cares about you? If God cares about your specific situation?
Thomas Merton in his book Contemplation in a World of Action, addresses the concerns of spiritual contemplation versus participation in the world. He critiqued the Catholic church for
“giving up on the world and retreating into the abstract” (Odell)
““Is it enough to wall the monk off in a little contemplative enclave and there allow him to ignore the problems and crises of the world, should he forget the way other men have struggle for a living and simply let his existence be justified by the fact that punctually recites the hours in choir, attend conventual Mass, strives for interior perfection and makes an honest effort to “live a life of prayer”?””
Merton’s legacy lies in a turning point for him, a turning from traditional monk endeavors, from asceticism to a holy active participation and integration in the world. Apparently this happened in Kentucky, there lays a plaque that marks this,
““In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.””
This thinking goes against some Christian teachings I’ve heard. We’re only visitors here. This is not our home. Our real home is heaven, where God has prepared a palace for us. In fact, if we’re last here, we’ll be first there. It has pitted people against themselves, only caring about the spiritual realm rather than the place where “God themself became incarnate”. I think that’s compelling. If it was all spiritual, why did Jesus ACTUALLY come to earth, at a specific time and place. Couldn’t things just be fixed or compelled through some kind of magical powers. Why did Jesus care about the social structure of the day and spoke out against it? Why did Jesus embody a body at all? Why did Jesus literally heal people instead of telling them their pain will be no more in heaven when they die? I believe that a God that decided to not just wave their hands high up in the sky but decides to come, join, live in this world is a God that deeply deeply cares for this material world. This physical world. One who cares about the “sorrows and stupidities of the human condition”.
The warning, “Behold, the kingdom of God is coming” isn’t, wasn’t what we think it means. You see things get lost in translation. Some languages have a much more nuance to things sometimes, that can be captured through a wide varied way of conjugating a verb. I experience this as an English as a Second Language speaker, I know, you probably think, wow her English is really good, and yes I worked hard to learn English because English is really hard. Learning a new language is really difficult because it’s not just speech, it’s ideas, it’s movement, it’s concept you are trying to understand.
For example in Korean, there are many ways to saying, “She’s coming over. You could say, “she’s on her way.” or “She’s about to come” or “She was about to come” which, you know the difference between the two sentences when the only difference is two letters. Or “She was coming” and then it connotes that maybe something else happened.
When this text was translated,
“the Kingdom of God is within you.”
Turns out there are many different ways to translate this. Listen to variations.
One could say, “Within you, within your hearts.” Or “Among you, in your midst.” Which is a HUGE difference because one is personal and individual, whereas the latter is PLURAL and COMMUNAL. And even not pinpoint-able but in the movement within you. Like the Kingdom of God is not here(person) or here (person) but here (the in-between them two).
I have an old critical commentary of the Bible that my dad bought from a book dealer in Korea when he was in seminary. Its first print dates 1901. And it says that it wouldn’t have made sense for Jesus to say that it’s in your heart, because he was talking to the Pharisees, which he was always making the point that they were not getting the point.
Cyril of Alexandria, a writer from the 4th century, makes it mean,
“lies in your power to appropriate it.”
The kingdom of God lies in your power to appropriate it. REALLY? N.T. Wright puts it similarly,
“The phrase (in your midst) is more active. It doesn’t just tell you where the kingdom is; it tells you that you’ve got to do something about it. It is ‘within your grasp’; it is confronting you with a decision…”
My seminary professor said, “the Kingdom of God is coming” is more like,
“The kingdom of God is right in front of your nose.”
And my translation would be,
“The kingdom of God is about to be all up in your face. What are you gonna do about it?”
The kingdom of heaven is not up there, or after we die. The kingdom of heaven is right here and the question isn’t where it is but what are you going to do about it?
The end of the film, My Octopus Teacher says this, and I’m not spoiling it for you, because it’s impossible for me to spoil the visual magnificence of the film by quoting it, but he closes by saying,
“What she taught me was to feel… that you’re part of this place, not a visitor. That’s a huge difference.”
This has implications not only to the social political problems of the day, but also for us these days to our environment, which I don’t have time to get into now. But the spirit of God, the reign of God includes you, your body, our earth, your problems, the octopus, the war, and everything in-between, all in our midst. How could that be? I don’t know. But that seems to be the invitation here, The kingdom of God lies in your power to appropriate it. Is that too close for comfort? Is that too much power in our hands instead of God or Jesus? That’s what Jesus seems to be saying…
I’ll leave you with another quote from Jesus, from John 14:12. He says,
“Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.”
THEY WILL DO EVEN GREATER THINGS THAN THESE. You will do even greater things than Jesus! Do you believe that? I don’t know. Let’s pray about it. I don’t know, that’s the end of my talk. Let’s pray.
God how can it be. What are humans that you are mindful of them? Human beings that you care for them? You have given us your spirit to be with us, and have charged us with your call. Help us to see and listen, and participate in the great wave of your power blowing over the waters of chaos. Oh Spirit, compel us to realize that we are co-creators, conduits of your kingdom here and now, on earth as we imagine it in “heaven”, may it be, let us be that. WE pray in the strong name of Jesus Christ Amen.